Business etiquette catching up to a wireless world

By USA Today – 01/22/2005 – 12:00am


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (AP) — As Chuck Musciano moves from meeting to meeting though the business day, he totes a wireless laptop that he pops open to keep up with the world outside the room.

While the meeting rolls, Musciano taps on his keyboard to check what’s being discussed against internal data or information on the Internet. He can ask a colleague outside the meeting for help or a decision. He’ll also check e-mail to make sure he’s not missing something — and that’s when he has to make sure his post-modem etiquette doesn’t fail him.

“It is possible to be impolite,” admits Musciano, vice president of operations for the American Kennel Club in Raleigh. “I’m conscious of that. I’m careful of not being overwhelmed by e-mail.”

Already pervading colleges, coffee shops and airports, high-speed wireless Internet networks are increasingly being installed in offices.

Just as it took a while for most cell phone users to realize what’s rude, the business world is confronting an etiquette learning curve for balancing increased efficiency with manners.

Because they create the capacity for quiet side conversations — from cracking wise to confirming production schedules — wireless laptops, cell phones and personal digital assistants are changing the dynamics of the business meeting. The technology allows contact with the outside world through e-mail, instant messaging and the Web, enabling an instant decision or easy distraction.

“When I speak to a room of people with laptops, they all have their heads buried in their laptops,” said Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wi-Fi Alliance, the standard-setting group that promotes wireless fidelity, one type of wireless technology. “Many of them are taking notes of what we’re saying, but I think many of them are just trying to catch up with their e-mails.”

Wireless capability threatens the top rule in meeting dos-and-don’ts, which is paying attention to the speaker, said Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette For Dummies and a manners consultant for many Silicon Valley executives.

“I think people are pretty aware that they’re not going to do a report during a speech,” Fox said. “If you’re doing other work — talking on a phone, working on a computer — I think it’s ill manners. It’s very rude”

Ron Sperano says he’s seen the clueless disrupt an entire meeting by typing incessantly or failing to mute their laptop’s audio and letting it bing and buzz away as messages flow in and out. He’s been so distracted by e-mail he didn’t hear a question asked of him by a vice president. (The screen closed unexpectedly on Sperano, who looked up to find his boss smiling at him and the room silent.)

On the other hand, “if it’s a two-hour meeting, I don’t need to be attentive for those two hours,” said Sperano, who heads wireless solutions for IBM’S laptops and other personal computers. “I’d be the first to tell you I do e-mail at a lot of the meetings. But I have to do that because I’ve got to do more with less. That’s how I do more with less.”

Sperano’s developed a vocabulary for the dynamics of meeting where some stay connected. He admits to being an outlet hound — those who walk into a meeting and immediately scout out a power outlet they can plug into.

Watch out for the “basement meeting” — that running commentary of confidential reactions to the company line carried out via instant messaging, he said. People who aren’t paying attention to the meeting around them display a “cache deficit” and have to ask for a repeat of the discussion’s last 20 words.

Then there’s the annoying “Google-It-Alls” — those “people who use the Internet connection to look up the answer to every single question and respond like the kid in class who always raises their hand first,” Sperano said.

Sperano believes that meeting etiquette will evolve as wireless networks — which use radio waves to broadcast signals back and forth to strategically placed antennas — build a pervasive information environment.

Laptop developers are anticipating the use of wireless in ways that include adding tiny lights to illuminate the keyboard in a darkened room, quieter keypads and a one-button mute to silence the babel. A 180-degree hinge allows display screens to lay flat, removing a physically small but psychologically important barrier to eye contact around a conference table, Sperano said.

Besides using common sense, courtesy and discretion, Sperano said his main advice is to get your laptop or PDA configured and working before you walk into a meeting, not while people are trying to talk. Businesses are adopting wireless because it can increase efficiency for workers who spend a lot of time at meetings, away from their desks or on the road.

Semiconductor maker Intel last year tested the value of an office wireless network on about 800 employees from engineering to sales. The employees found they had 23 minutes extra per day to accomplish their work, said Brian Tucker, an Intel marketing manager for mobile equipment who conducted the study.

Intel estimated only 11 minutes of additional productivity per week was needed to break even on the cost of setting up a wireless network. Fitting out 1,000 employees at a total cost of $400,000 would deliver a benefit of $5 million over three years.

By last year, Intel had equipped almost 5,000 users across the company in 80 buildings, Tucker said.

“We’re a highly mobile workforce,” he said.

Like technology, etiquette is something that changes with the times, Fox said.

“The basis is the same, though,” she said, “respect, self respect, respecting others.”

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